Rumpled Stump Skin

Paul came into the library yesterday, on crutches. As a fast walker, I nearly ran into him when he was coming out of periodicals to look at the new books.

He was wearing shorts. His stump, like all stumps, dangles as if defying gravity, knee is flexed, if slightly. It’s an odd observation, and I mention it because my stump does the same thing. It is not rigid, it kind of hangs there, looking sort of useless, like a penguin’s flipper when he’s on land.

Paul’s residual limb wasn’t exposed because he was wearing a stump shrinker. Once you remove your leg from the routine of being in a steel trap for 15-20 hours a day it has a way of rebelling by swelling and turning shades of red, crimson, and then purple leaning toward blue, as in “Violet your turning violet.”

I’ve got an open wound and can’t put my leg on, Paul said. I know open wounds or sores on your stump means your $15,000 prosthesis is probably going to be “for display only” in your house until you heal. Knowing that it was not so much the pain as it is the inability to wear a leg, I asked, “Have you seen Jeff?” We’ve been going to the same prosthetist, and that’s where we first met. He had, but Jeff didn’t offer any advice, except to leave the leg off.

“I hate these things.” He must have said it a half dozen times during our conversation in the middle of the Fairhope Public Library. It wasn’t the open wound he hated, or his prosthesis, but the abysmal consequences of using crutches for mobility. This is the same guy who doesn’t think twice about popping his leg off in the library, sometimes at the drop of a hat. It reminds me of the way some people want to pour out all their problems to me, the reference desk bar tender. Or maybe it’s like reference radar, the feeling I get when I know someone is waiting at the desk without having to actually see a patron. Call it a sixth sense, but don’t confuse it with six degrees from Kevin Bacon (I’m two degrees from Hollywood’s everyman).

Crutches make you ashamed of your body, and embarrassed by your appearance. I’ve been fortunate, I only use my wooden crutches in the house. I can speak from past experience that going limbless is bad for your mental health. Prolonged isolation, loneliness and depression are often the result of amputees not being able to wear their legs. As I get older, I know these types of sores are going to happen and one day I’ll be using crutches or perhaps a wheelchair in the library. Sores in all their variations are a byproduct of when artificial limbs meet human flesh. It’s gotten better, much better.  

As we talked I saw some of my old books that I had read, donated and helped catalog earlier this summer. They are not brand new, but when books are new to us, we feature them on the new shelves with “new” stickers. The Transformation, The Made-up Self, The List, Who says I can’t, and Drinking from my Leg were sitting on the shelf.

“I could feel something, but I had to get a mirror to look at the back of my stump.” When your leg is trapped in a canister, heated to a boiling point here in the south, sometimes it’s hard to tell when something is uncomfortable or has already gone horribly wrong. Sores, blisters, and open wounds can be caused by something as a simple as a rumpled sock, or something more complex like a change in physical mass of your leg that results in an ill-fitting socket.

“I went to the wound care at Thomas Hospital,” Paul said.

“They deal mostly with diabetes patients there, don’t they?” I wondered if they were any help.

“I was hoping they were going to have a magic elixir to heal the wound faster and all they gave me was this ridiculous band aid,” he said, and we were both laughing as he spaced out a half inch between his thumb and forefinger. He was looking for a balm, the kind Jackie Chiles warned Cosmo Kramer about in Seinfeld. “You put the balm on?” “Who told you to put the balm on?” When I was a kid and sores forced me to go artificial limb-less, my mom always went for the “medicated ointment” in the square, green tin can. Similar in consistency to Vaseline, Bag Balm claims to reduce and relieve irritations and moisturize a cow’s udders.

“You never know what a balm is gonna do,” Jackie cautioned. Balms are unpredictable. Sometimes the Bag Balm worked, sometimes it didn’t.

“The doctor said it’ll be at least another ten days.” I realized that the patrons staring at Paul were completely oblivious to the fact that we share similar circumstances. We both need a below the knee prosthesis to walk around.

We vowed to do a better job of self-examinations to make sure our stump skin is healthy.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a woman at a public computer station raising one hand and finger-curling me over with another. I nodded, and looked back at Paul and apologized for having to cut the conversation short.

“Thanks for coming in today,” I told him, “and take care of yourself.” I touched his shoulder and hoped he felt my reassurance.

I wanted to share my news with Paul that I am teaching English 101 at the University of Mobile. I didn’t. It seemed more important to listen and share information about our less-than-four lot in life. Most amputees, including myself, have been where Paul stands: on one leg, waiting impatiently for a wound to heal.

Until he can put his leg on again, Paul has other qualities that will help him through this trial, like patience, persistence, and perseverance. In other words, the man has True Grit.